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Hurling | Should there be an all-Ulster team?
Should there be an all-Ulster hurling team?
Down manager Ronan Sheehan says it is time to introduce 'Team Ulster' at underage level on a trial basis, with a view to introducing a senior side in the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
The Ulster counties are currently littered throughout the lower divisions of the 2020 Allianz National League, with the exception of Antrim, who will win promotion from Division 2A to Division 1B should they beat Kerry in the promotion/relegation play-off when hurling resumes.
Down and Derry occupy first and second place respectively in Division 2B, with Donegal, Tyrone and Armagh forming the top three in Division 3A.
Monaghan sit fifth in 3A, while Fermanagh and Cavan are the bottom two in Division 3B.
There has also been no provincial All-Ireland Championship in Ulster for the past three years. Sheehan, whose team are in a strong position to win promotion should the leagues resume in 2020, has laid out his vision for how 'Team Ulster' could succeed.
The Down manager says Antrim, who famously reached the All-Ireland final in 1989, should be allowed the choice to remain exempt from the combined team.
"By all means approach Antrim and leave the door open for them, but they may decide it is of no interest to them," Sheehan told RTÉ Sport.
"They are working hard on the Gaelfast project and link up well with Club Aontrama, so they may have no interest in this. But that doesn’t mean Team Ulster couldn’t be formed anyway."
Sheehan wants administrators to use the lockdown to draw up a template for placing a combined Ulster team into the Leinster Championship at underage level.
He has dismissed suggestions that the logistics of such a venture would prove too difficult to overcome, citing players driving from college for training as it stands, and naming Cookstown as a possible venue for training.
Sheehan also says the counties would still compete in other competitions individually.
"Firstly, the Ulster counties would still compete in the Meaghar, Rackard and Ring cups as usual," he says.
"But once those competitions end, and they finish up very early in the season, I don’t see why a Team Ulster could not compete in a preliminary All-Ireland quarter-final or a play-off, for example. Maybe even one day in the Leinster Championship proper.
"The approach has to be to trial this system at underage level. There are distinct levels of hurling within Ulster, probably three tiers, but competitions like the Celtic Challenge Under-17 series have helped Ulster teams’ level off.
"Individually, when we send counties like Down and Antrim to play in Leinster at minor level, we haven’t set the world alight, but we have some serious players elsewhere in this province. They are not getting to play at the level they deserve with their counties and because of that they focus more on their clubs."
Name-checking Chrissy McKeigue and Brendan Rodgers, Sheehan is adamant that top hurlers in Ulster should be given the opportunity to test themselves against the best players at county level.
"All of the really good players want to test themselves at the top. They want the opportunity to prove they are as good as anyone else. To play in front of cameras at Croke Park in the summer.
"Individually, many counties are not at the level to help players like those but put us all together and see what happens."